It turns out the mother who gave birth to octuplets last week already has six other children aged 7 or younger, including twins. One of her children is autistic. All of the children were conceived by IVF, allegedly using the sperm of a neighbour who asked her to stop having herself impregnated with the embryos that were half his. He plays no role in the children’s lives and isn’t listed on their birth certificates as their father. She has no reliable income, and lives with her parents, who declared bankruptcy last year. In her mother’s own words, she
has been obsessed since her teens with being a mother and had eight embryos implanted because she wanted “just one more girl” to add to her existing brood of six children aged two to seven.
I wouldn’t know where to start, if we were to make a list of all the things wrong with this situation. In some European countries, IVF is only available to legally married couples. Is it the government’s job to regulate that? I don’t know, but if we accept that the government has a role in monitoring adoption, to ensure that children aren’t adopted into unsuitable homes, it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable that the government have some role in monitoring highly interventionist ART like this.
But why is there a doctor in the entire country who would do this? We have talked a lot at PWPL about doctors having the right to exercise their conscience and refuse to perform abortions or refer to other doctors for abortions. Doesn’t it go without saying that doctors aren’t obliged to implant 8 embryos just because a woman requests it? While it sounds as if all eight of these babies are in relatively good condition, they range in size from roughly one and a half to three and a half pounds, and it is never desirable that babies be born so prematurely and small. And that’s the best case scenario when implanting such a high number – far more commonly, a number of them would miscarry (if that’s the right word). The risks to the mother of an octuplet pregnancy, never mind her seventh pregnancy in seven years, also aren’t negligible.
Did it never cross the minds of the people who impregnated this woman (and the situation seems murky – IVF isn’t cheap) to wonder about her mental soundness? I’ve known people – married, stable, financially secure couples hoping for their first child – whose specialists asked them to see a psychologist as part of the plan for fertility treatment, to ensure that they could cope with the additional stress that the various treatments, and the high chance of failure, can bring. Is ART such a lawless field in California that any woman, under any circumstances, can be impregnated with as many embryos as she wants, regardless of the risks to her health and the babies’, as long as the cheque clears?
This case represents a collision of a lot of problems. Should people with financial difficulties not have kids? Well, it’s irresponsible not to be able to provide the basics for them, but in a civilized country they won’t starve to death. Should single women deliberately bear children? The evidence is clear that this doesn’t set the kids up for the easiest life, but in a free country it isn’t anyone else’s place to prevent them from doing so. Should legal restrictions exist on how many embryos can be implanted at one time? Surely this is a medical decision, and yet none of the doctors involved seemed to be using good judgment. Should the criteria for IVF be as stringent, and by implication as regulated by government, as adoption? The small-government conservative in me screams “no,” especially if the government isn’t paying the tab, but you couldn’t really ask for a better example if you wanted to make the case that oversight is necessary.
I’d love to hear from those with a better understanding of the medical side of this, and also from our in-house medical ethicist!
Seriously, like Rebecca, my libertarian side doesn’t want too much government regulation in private affairs. But my more pragmatic and rational side, seeing this sort of terrible story, wonders why it has been allowed to happen. I mean, I’m glad they didn’t abort some or all of the babies and that they all seem to be doing reasonably well. I really do wish those small children the best – I hope they manage to have as close to a normal and happy life as can be managed. But you see what happens when people are allowed to use science to defy nature. Even the ‘father’ of these babies had no say in the matter – how crazy is that?
Véronique says: 2 words: reproductive freedom. Once you start down that road, who is to say when to put the breaks? As a society, if we want women the freedom not to reproduce even after a child has been conceived, we must face the other extreme: women who want to reproduce in spite of every shred of common sense (to put it mildly).
I have a very difficult time with infertility treatments, mostly because of the hardships they put on the babies. Parents are able to consent to the aggressive treatments they go through. 1-pound premature babies don’t. I believe that every life is worth living, even lives of suffering. I also believe that every life has a purpose, even disabled life. That being said, medically-created lives of suffering make me cringe. It’s one thing to embrace disability when it comes knocking on your door. It’s another thing to plunge head-first in a medical endeavor likely to create suffering, especially when the suffering is not your own.
Infertility treatments also make me reflect on the contrast between unwanted pregnancies and the desperate want of children in the same environment. Have children become such commodities that we can create them or dispatch them at will? I guess they have.
Our society has a severe case of split personality, let me tell you.
At any rate we made a choice, as a society, to let science run wild. We could have put the breaks on several scientific developments that are now being questioned. We assumed that we would know when to put the breaks. As it turns out, some people do but many still don’t. I think that to reverse steam, we will need to experiment all the horror that some scientific pursuits have to offer. In this regard, I’m glad that the octuplets story is causing shock and outrage. It’s too bad that 8 frail lives now have to pay for that lesson.
Véronique adds to her comment: As an aside, am I the only one who is genuinely freaked out by the amount of personal information the media has access to regarding the mother and her kin? Information that they do not hesitate to share liberally, like it’s our right to know?
It makes me wonder if such wide-ranging information about me is available out there. Not that my life is that interesting: all my babies were conceived the ol’ fashioned way with the same guy, imagine! When I got unexpectedly pregnant with the baby I’m about to deliver, people would ask me “How did this happen??” and I would answer “Do you want the G-rated version or the X-rated one?” Lesson: don’t ask stupid questions you don’t really want answers to.
Anyhow, when I was young and innocent I used to think that surveillance and the availability of personal information in the public square were only bothersome to those who had something to hide. You want to pour over my phone records? Go ahead and bore yourself to death. But now I realize that the problem lies with letting anybody and everybody (including the media, the government, the insurance companies, the banks, the neighbours…) decide what exactly is “something to hide.”by